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USA: Washington Indifferent to Trade in Torture Weapons

by Cesar ChelalaEarth Times News Service
April 10th, 2001

Several related events recently took place that highlight the seriousness of the trade in torture weapons such as electroshock weapons, and the role that private companies in some countries, notably the United States and the United Kingdom, have in it.

These, and other countries' role was stressed in a document just released by Amnesty International called "Stopping the Torture Trade," which calls for a stop in the production and trade of torture weapons.

The release of this report comes at the same time as the US State Department report on human rights around the world, the accusation against General Hernan Gabrielli, the second-in-comand of the Chilean Air Force for his participation in torture of political prisoners during the Pinochet regime, a landmark ruling by the Inter-American Court of Human rights, establishing that amnesty cannot stand in the way of trials for human rights abuses, and an Argentine judge's decision to overturn amnesty laws dictated by the military. These laws protected from prosecution hundreds of soldiers and military officers who were accused of torture, murder and kidnapping during Argentina's last military rule, from 1976 to 1983, thus potentially opening the way for a wave of trials. If those officers who participated in torture are finally found guilty, this will mark a new human rights era in Argentina with repercussions around the world.

According to Amnesty International, US companies, as well as companies from the United Kingdom, France, and Russia sell weapons and other equipment used for torture. It states that some American companies are involved in the manufacture, marketing and export of such items. Among them are high-tech electroshock weapons, leg irons and serrated thumb cuffs designed to tear flesh if a detainee intends to escape. Amnesty International believes that some of these items -such as flesh tearing thumb cuffs and electric shock weapons-are "inherently cruel" and their trade should be banned outright.

The US is the largest supplier of electro-shock devices. According to AI investigations, 86 US companies have manufactured, marketed or sold electro shock devices during the 1990s. William F. Schulz, head of the US chapter of the London-based human rights group, stated, "These weapons are used against many people who should be heroes to Americans." In many countries including Argentina -my own-electro-shock has been routinely used against political prisoners. Those devices have also been used against children, pregnant women, the elderly, and the mentally ill.

The AI report also indicates that the US, as well the United Kingdom, China, France, and Russia are among the main providers worldwide of training to military, police and security forces of foreign states. Because those forces are the main users of torture technique and equipment, stopping torture means stopping also the trade and the training that helps create those "professional torturers."

Even though it is illegal to own some of the equipment in the US, the US Department of Commerce has granted export licenses for this kind of weapons under the category of "control crime equipment" for sales that amount to $97 million since 1997. Data from that Department also show that Saudi Arabia, Russia, Taiwan, Israel and Egypt are among the major recipients of US equipment. In a statement Schultz remarked, "It is unconscionable that while the US State Department promotes human rights, the US Department of Commerce has approved export licenses to countries that our own government documents as committing torture."

Perhaps all countries should follow on the steps of President Vicente Fox, who recently assumed power in Mexico, and who has given human rights a special prominence. In a speech at Mexico's National Commission on Human Rights he declared, "We are going to eradicate torture forever." President Fox has already open the dialogue with Sub-Comandante Marcos, the leader of the Zapatistas rebels in his country.

Mariclaire Acosta, Fox's top human rights official, stated that the problem of torture in Mexico is of considerable magnitude, and it is necessary to build great public will to eliminate it. As the Amnesty Report indicates, "Torture doesn't happen in a vacuum. If the governments of the world had the political will to stop torture they could do so." Coming on the heels of the State Department report on human rights abuses around the world, the Amnesty International report on the torture trade should be a sobering reminder of every country's responsibility in its elimination.

Dr. Cesar Chelala is an international medical consultant, and a co-winner of the 1979 Overseas Press Club of America award for an article on human rights entitled "Missing or Dead in Argentina: The Desperate Search for Thousands of Disappeared Victims," published as a cover story in The New York Times Magazine.

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